Recently, I was asked by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and his economic development staff to participate in a trade mission to India. Leadership from the Office of Economic Development and International Trade made the trip, along with the Governor, and a small but thoughtful group of entrepreneurs, academics, and business leaders. We traveled half way across the world to promote Colorado to Indian business leaders. What came about was something much more meaningful.
In the coming weeks, I will be writing more about my experiences in India. Some of that writing will be about my industry of tech and cybersecurity. But this short piece is meant to capture some initial thoughts and feelings that I think are important to express.
You Would Be Amazed
From 2005–2006, I lived in China attempting to become a scholar of the country and understand its growing place in the world. What I felt during that year of my life there — the opportunity, excitement, possibilities — is what I feel now for India.
There are so many around the world who do not give this country the credit it deserves. For hundreds of years, Indians have not controlled their own destiny. From the Mongols to the British, India has been, in one way or another, ruled by outsiders. But in the short period of time since Indians have rule of India, this nation has confounded expectations and set itself on a course to become, perhaps, the next key and indispensable nation on earth.
It is apparent that India does not make long and slow incremental progress. For example, there are nearly 700,000,000 people in this country who are unbanked — meaning that they do not have a bank account. Rather than take slow steps to remedy this problem, the Indian government has authorized mobile telecom companies to use their platforms as financial institutions, immediately banking the better part of a billion people in the most efficient manner possible.
The vast majority of Indians live without any form of identification, which makes accessing public and private services nearly impossible. Rather than take a traditional process, the Indian government is rolling out a national biometric identification program. Not only will this provide security in a digital economy, it will turn the worlds largest democracy into a nation that can change the face of voting enfranchisement for the world. Of course, this is not without challenges to privacy. But India can do what American never did — they can unlink financial benefit programs, such as social security numbers, from identification, providing actual safety for consumers when they must identify themselves to various institutions.
But it is as much about growth of cities as it is growth in capability that amazed me. Cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore are expanding at rates that would stop a team of oxen in their tracks. Millions of people are migrating from around India to seek a better life in these places of commerce, art, and technology, and urbanization. And while this isn’t always pretty, India is building enormous cities on what seems like a monthly basis just to keep up with the demand of its people. From tech cities to those focused on pharmaceuticals, the Indian economy is much more alive that you’d expect. And so is the soul of Indian people.
Leaders we spoke with who captain Indian industries understand now their place in the world. They see what they are capable of and are capitalizing on it. This is good for their national spirit and good for their people. I, for one, am excited for this change.
Yet, Still A Long Way To Go
There is one sad global trend that is well-alive in India as it is in China, America, Russia, and many other nations. The disparity of wealth and backbreaking poverty of the lower rungs of society is well alive.
While on this trade mission, I took a number of opportunities to break away from the business agenda to see what was happening in the cities we visited. What I found was sadly unsurprising, though I will admit that it shows signs of improvement.
From open defecation and poverty to ramped pollution and bifurcated society, there is much of Indian life that is terribly difficult. More than this, impoverished Indians do seem to have a broken spirit. While Indians at the top of society may see opportunity, I felt like those towards the bottom could only see hardship.
One statistic that we heard was that there is only 1 doctor per every 74,000 people and that most rural communities have no access to any form of quality healthcare at all. While education in the cities is on the rise, it may be on a comparative decline throughout the non-urban areas as a whole. But as concerning is this, more than 95% of India lives on under $5.00 per day. That means that more than a billion people in a nation of 1.3 billion live at or under the poverty line.
A Special Relationship
In recent years, the world has seen an explosion of xenophobia in both people and policy. While many in the United States may feel that this is an American phenomenon, I assure you that it isn’t.
From Europe to Asia, nations are shutting their doors to each other. It seems that fear and hatred are a new global currency. But that simply cannot stand between the United States and India — or any nation in the world.
There is something special happening here in India — and I believe that it could fundimentally change American life for the better.
Not only is India a global market for American commerce and economic opportunity, it is a country that shares so many values that we hold dear in the United States. From the deeply close love of family and celebration of community to our shared history of colonialism, there could be an important love affair between American and India. We share a love of humor, exploration, food, fashion, and a common belief that we can improve the world though our works.
We are two nations that I believe fundamentally understand each other. If we take the long view, we will recognize that the 20th century was the first time both of our nations were recognized by the world. In perspective, this is such a short period of time.
Should we decide that we are both critical partners to the future of this century, I believe that we will all be better for it. That thinking creates an opportunity to build a deeply important partnership that could support two nations, connected by commerce, and supported by values that can bring our world closer to a better future — together.